Sunday, 18 July 2010

The burqa and the brain

The burqa debate has sparked some interesting blogs, but there is an element to these discussions that I have not yet encountered, and that concerns the physiology of facial expression interpretation. I thought it worthwhile to scribble a few lines about why it may or may not matter that we see the full face of another individual.

The human brain has evolved the ability to interpret a wide range of emotions, the most important of which are happy, fear, surprise, disgust, anger and sadness. When we meet someone we look first at the eyes and then at the rest of the face, and within a fifth of a second we (well, most people) make a judgement as to their emotional state. In evolutionary terms this ability has been crucial to the success of homo sapiens as a social animal, as it primes elemental responses such as empathy and distrust.

As a species we simply do not have the neuronal machinery to accurately evaluate the mood of a fellow human being without being able to see the full face. But does this matter? Perhaps in societies where faces have been partly hidden for generations, individuals become more adept at making those evaluations solely on the subtle nuances of the eyes. The problem arises where burqa-wearer meets non burqa-wearer or, in this debate, where East meets West. The former is privy to a depth of emotional analysis denied the latter, who may thus feel at a disadvantage (real or imagined). This subtle discomfort is what many of us will have experienced in receiving a delivery at our front door from a helmeted motor-cyclist.

The liberal side of me believes that providing it is worn willingly and without duress, anyone should be able to wear the burqa or niqab (except perhaps when driving). However, we must also recognize that for sound evolutionary reasons face-covering impairs communication between individuals and that this is not good for social cohesion.

1 comment:

  1. Rather entertainingly I was listening to a discussion about burqas on the radio this morning, needless to say I could only tell that one of the protagonists was wearing one because they'd explicitly mentioned it.

    The number of burqa wearers in the UK must be vanishingly small (in the hundreds), so it's rather surprising that we manage quite so much discussion about it.